League party leader Matteo Salvini, and a deputy prime minister in the Eurosceptic coalition, have made curbing immigration a clarion call of his party whose popularity is rising fast in opinion polls.
Two days after the government was sworn in on Friday, Salvini headed for Sicily, the main port of call for more than 600,000 migrants who have arrived on Italy’s shores from North Africa since 2014.
The League says the vast majority of them have no right to refugee status, Italy cannot afford to help them and by accepting low pay they worsen the working conditions of Italians.
Salvini kept up the pressure on Monday, saying in a radio interview that Italy “can’t be transformed into a refugee camp,” and vowing to lobby Italy’s partners to obtain more EU assistance to handle the problem.
“It’s clear and obvious that Italy has been abandoned, now we have to see facts,” Salvini said, when asked about comments from German chancellor Angela Merkel that Europe needs a new approach on immigration.
Salvini, who wants to open a migrant detention and deportation center in every Italian region, later tweeted: “either Europe gives us a hand in making our country secure, or we will choose other methods”.
Italy has become one of the main routes into Europe for economic migrants and asylum seekers, with hundreds of thousands making the perilous crossing from North Africa each year and thousands dying at sea. The other main route, from Turkey to Greece, supposedly was largely shut after more than 1 million people arrived in 2015.
After at least 48 migrants were killed at the weekend when their boat sank off Tunisia’s coast, Salvini said there was no reason for people to be fleeing Tunisia which was “a free and democratic country”.
He also accused Tunisia of “exporting its convicts” to Italy. The foreign ministry in Tunis called in Italy’s ambassador to complain, releasing a short statement afterwards to express its “its deep surprise” at Salvini’s comments.
An opinion poll by the Ipsos agency published on Saturday in daily Corriere della Sera showed support for the League had risen to 28.5 percent from 17 percent at the March 4 election.
It now stands just 1.6 points behind its coalition partner, the more left-leaning 5-Star Movement, whose support has slipped slightly since it took 32.7 percent at the election.
Western Europe’s first anti-establishment government, which faces its first confidence vote in the upper house Senate on Tuesday, seems determined to hit the ground running.
Italy’s bond market, which sold off heavily early last week on fears of a repeat election, recovered lost ground on Monday, with the gap between the yield on Italy’s benchmark bonds and their safer German equivalent narrowing sharply.
Reporting by Gavin Jones, and Tarek Amara in Tunisia.